REVIEW: HBO’s ‘John Adams’

HBO pulls out all the stops for its seven-part adaptation of David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning historical biography John Adams. This grand-scale retelling of five decades of U.S. history, from colonial times to the pre-industrial revolution, boasts lavish sets, meticulous period costumes and props, location work on both sides of the Atlantic and a huge cast of uniformly winning performances. 

As impressive as the epic production values are, the miniseries also provides a surprisingly intimate look at one of the nation’s founding fathers and his “best, dearest, worthiest, wisest friend in the world,” wife Abigail.

Paul Giamatti stars as Adams, the Yankee farmer and lawyer who convinced a skeptical Continental Congress to declare independence from England and then went on to serve his country as vice president under George Washington and then as its second president.

Best-known for comic turns and character roles in big-screen efforts such as Sideways and American Splendor, Giamatti proves to be an inspired choice. His Adams is a close physical approximation of the man that McCullough describes as “middle size” and “verging on portly,” with a round face, “high forehead and thinning hairline.”

Giamatti’s nuanced performance, though, also captures the complexities and contradictions of Adams’ personality – a devout Christian as well as an independent thinker, who could be alternately “high-spirited and affectionate, vain, cranky, impetuous, self-absorbed, and fiercely stubborn.” Giamatti manages to convey these qualities and more in an understated way that is persuasive without being showy, and emotional without being sentimental.

Equally impressive is Laura Linney, who imbues Abigail Adams with great strength as well as humanity. Her scenes with Giamatti are among the most moving, and wonderfully convey the sense that Abigail was central to everything Adams was and did.

Other standout performances include Danny Huston as Adams’ cousin Samuel who first drew him to the “great and common cause” of independence; Stephen Dillane as Thomas Jefferson, whose friendship with Adams became strained over the years; and especially Tom Wilkinson who portrays the bon-mot-spouting Ben Franklin as larger than life without resorting to caricature.

The first four installments – the only ones available for review at press time – focus on Adams’ role in the Continental Congress leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and his time spent overseas trying to secure support for America’s Revolutionary War effort through to the British surrender and the establishment of a new federal government in America.

Director Tom Hooper and writer Kirk Ellis treat their source material respectfully, without being overly reverent, dramatizing history without cheapening it.

There are some isolated moments -- including a tar-and-feathering and an amputation -- that seem tacked on solely to remind viewers that this is, after all, pay cable. No doubt Adams enthusiasts and Americana buffs will be on the lookout for any bits of artistic license. And admirers of the stage and screen tuner 1776 may watch half expecting the colonists to break into song.

Still, there is no denying that John Adams is an impressive achievement that will satisfy fans of both epic storytelling and human drama.

The first installment of John Adams is scheduled for Sunday March 16 at 8 p.m. on HBO.

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